Arranging the Poems in an Issue

I don’t know what other editors do, but I pay special attention to the order of the poems in an issue. For the past handful of issues I try to open with a poem that is spiritual in some way–invoking the holy in nature with reverence. I try to end with an apocalyptic poem, one that signals the potential downfall of the planet–or some special part of it that would make living on it less of a wonder. It’s not that I seek out poems with such content to fill these spaces; it’s just that, every issue, there turns out to be at least one reverent poem and one semi-apocalyptic poem. The poems also tend to break down into themes or topics (poems about animals, about trees, about human relationships, etc.) and so I group these together as well as try to find hinges between the topics. Sometimes these are merely a second poem by the same author; other times it is an image or a phrase that provides the hinge.

For example, in issue #19, the two poems about gardens (“The End of the Garden” by Kathleen Kirk and “The Shade Garden” by Gabriel Welsch) are followed by one titled “Persephone to Hades” (by Jules Green) and then by Ralph Culver’s “Prelude” (which is set in winter) and “False Spring” (by Don Thompson). This latter poem mentions birds, and the next poem by Linda King is “a bird will rest its feet only in flight.” This poem mentions “cloud promises,” which leads to the next poem by Caitlin Rice, titled “The Clouds All Fall to Earth.” And so on.

I was happy to see that Kathleen Kirk noticed this and commented upon it in a recent letter:

What a wonderful set of poems [in issue #19], and I admire your careful arrangement of them, and how they beckon to each other across the pages. I was of course delighted with Megan Roberts “Blackberries” poem, and I hope she enjoys the blackberries in mine. I love how Gabriel Welsch’s “Shade Garden” is opposite my garden poem. The issue is full of close observation of nature and evokes powerful emotions, deep thought, and all kinds of reverence. I love how the issue opens and closes with poems that kneel down. Wow.

I have to say that the coincidence of the first and last poem invoking kneeling was not one that I noticed nor intended. I won’t take credit for doing that intentionally, though it makes for a sweet wholeness. The poems in these two positions fulfill the functions I described above; in each, kneeling has a different purpose. In the opening poem, for example, the kneeling is out of reverence: “to stand/as if this were a throne/or the fragment of an Annunciation,/to bend, to kneel down, to pray” (“Loss,” E.G. Burrows). In the closing poem, the kneeling is forced by the Gods, to help us recognize our arrogance: “The gods have stood up and told you to kneel./And you kneel.” (“Hubris” by Misha Becker).

2 Comments

  1. harvey said,

    June 4, 2008 at 7:57 am

    I like this orchestration. I know one NZ journal that arranges the poems by the alphabetical order of the poet’s surname. I understand the simple logic of this ordering and appreciate its consistency. But is this the right way? Albatross appeals to me because more than any journal I know it reads like an orchestrated anthology. And you, Richard, are the conductor. (And I love Misha’s poem). Keep on keeping on.

  2. June 21, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I did notice the different functions of kneeling in those poems, and that was part of my delight! Glad to have your very specific explanation of how you order things!

    RE: Harvey’s comment: I was an editor of RHINO Magazine for 10 years, and we followed alphabetical order, partly for ease in poets and readers finding their work (esp. since we did not do regular indexing); we tried having two lists in contents, which works fine in Comstock Review, but it was cumbersome in RHINO. RHINO sometimes varies this by printing award poems up front in issue. Some issues of Poetry East, where I was an associate editor, are also done alphabetically. In magazines with a large content–many, many poets–this works not just for ease but also democratically. No one seems favored (by being first) or left behind…by appearing toward the end.

    In RHINO, the poems still called to each other in interesting ways, often with great side by side parallels and wonderful juxtapositions. I really liked the apparent randomness and fortuitous design of this; it made me reverent yet again, amazed!

    Many readers flip through literary magazines, anyway, reading here and there, and some read straight through, like my mom…so in a large magazine, alphabetical order is really just a neat organizing device that doesn’t get in the way of reader habits.

    In Albatross, the organization is crucial and allows for reading things in a specific order, as in a poet’s actual arranged book. I like it very much, and it beautifully reflects the editor’s vision and allows the reader to see in that way!


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